JOHANNESBURG (JTA) — Shortly after a senior government official angered the South African Jewish community with anti-Semitic slurs, President Kgalema Motlanthe met with community leaders and assured them that everything would be done to ensure the community’s safety.
Responding to concerns about the threats to Jews in South Africa during Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip, Motlanthe also told Jewish leaders that it is critical to ensure that South Africans did not import the anger and bitterness of the Middle East here. It was Motlanthe’s first sit-down with the Jewish community since he assumed office in September.
On Jan. 14, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Fatima Hajaig told a pro-Palestinian rally that Jews controlled America "no matter which government comes into power, whether Republican or Democratic, whether Barack Obama or George Bush."
"The control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money," she said. "If the Jewish money controls their country, then you cannot expect anything else."
A local Muslim television station, Channel Islam International, aired Hajaig’s comments as part of its rally coverage.
The rally, held during Israel’s three-week operation in Gaza, was organized by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, a partner of the ruling African National Congress party. Other sponors included the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, the South Africa Communist Party — also an ANC government partner — and the South Africa Council of Churches.
"We haven’t seen such brazen Jew-baiting from a senior government representative in South Africa for at least 50 years," David Saks, the associate director of the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies, told JTA. "What was especially troubling about it was the raucously enthusiastic response from the large audience."
Zev Krengel, the Jewish umbrella body’s national chairman, raised Hajaig’s comments at the meeting with Motlanthe. Krengel said the statements at the Palestinian solidarity rally, as well as slurs at a meeting the previous month with the Israeli ambassador, were “defamatory and inflammatory.” He said Hajaig’s public statement legitimized anti-Semitism.
In a statement prepared for the meeting, the board said, “We are extremely disturbed that a member of the South African Government has brazenly propagated classic anti-Jewish conspiracy theories at a large public gathering, as well as by the fact that this encouraged and further whipped up the anti-Jewish prejudices of those present.”
The Rev. Frank Chikane, director-general of the Presidency, added that in a sense, South Africans had become victims of the Middle East crisis: When conflict arose there, it resulted in heightened tensions among fellow South Africans, which was deeply regrettable.
The meeting with Motlanthe was to address threats mainly against businesses deemed to be "Zionist" or "Israel supporting." The threats were confined to words; no physical violence was reported. South Africa has a relatively low rate of anti-Semitic violence.
Hajaig, who is noted for her anti-Israel views, was appointed deputy minister of foreign affairs in November following the ouster of President Thabo Mbeki.
In December she summoned Israel’s new ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to criticize Israeli actions in Gaza. The meeting with Dov Segev-Steinberg led to an official complaint by Israel to the South African Embassy in Tel Aviv because Hajaig insulted Elias Inbram, the Israeli Embassy’s Ethiopia-born spokesman, presuming he was brought to the meeting as a token black.
Near the end of the acrimonious meeting, she was quoted by Saks as asking Segev-Steinberg, "When your colleagues in Europe attend a meeting like this, do they also take someone along like the person sitting next to you?"
Asked by Segev-Steinberg what she meant by the question, Hajaig said disparagingly to a colleague, "I think we are dealing with an ambassador here who doesn’t understand questions."
The South African government has not commented on Hajaig’s remarks at the rally or the meeting.
Israel was harshly criticized again when Segev-Steinberg appeared earlier this month for more than three hours before the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee. The Jewish state was accused of racist abuses against the Palestinians, of having forgotten the Holocaust and of conducting ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian population of Gaza.
Committee chairman Joe Sithole of the ANC claimed these "abuses" made "apartheid look like a Sunday-school picnic."
Sithole told Segev-Steinberg, "When Palestinians have to go through checkpoints like cattle though a dip, this is apartheid. When they cannot on drive on roads just because they are Palestinians, this is apartheid."
Another ANC member of Parliament, Patrick Sibanda, accused Israel of ethnic cleansing. "When there is destruction, why is Israel always involved?" Sibanda asked. "I feel strongly that this is part of an ethnic-cleansing program, a seizing of power."
Mewa Ramgobin, also of the ANC, demanded "Nuremberg-type trials for the commanders giving orders that ordinary Palestinians be killed. Have you forgotten what happened in Auschwitz? How many more?"
The lawmakers brought up Israel’s refusal to allow journalists into Gaza.
Segev-Steinberg called the apartheid comparisons "rubbish" and the Holocaust analogy "unacceptable and ill-informed." He also strongly denied allegations that Israel used chemical weapons. He put the blame for the high number of civilian casualties on Hamas, which he said deliberately used civilians as human shields.
Palestinian and NGO officials have said appromixately half of the estimated 1,300 Palestinians killed in Operation Cast Lead were civilians.
Segev-Steinberg stressed that Israel was at pains to avoid civilian casualties. He added that no country could allow its citizens to endure such prolonged rocket attacks as Hamas had made from Gaza.
The ambassador called South Africa’s view of the Middle East one-sided and unbalanced, pointing out that South Africa had remained silent when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had insinuated that he wanted Israel wiped off the map.
Speaking subsequently to the Jewish community of Durban, Segev-Steinberg described the South African position as even more radical than that of Hamas.